As Women's History Month comes to a close, I thought I would share my recent interview with one of my Chocolate City faves, Ananda Kiamsha Madelyn Leeke, author of a powerful new women's self discovery novel entitled Love's Troubadours - Karma: Book One (iUniverse, August 2007). When I discovered the connection that Ananda's novel has to DC, Spelman College, and mental health, I had to interview her. Read more:
1. What inspired you to write Love Troubadours - Karma: Book One?
After reading bell hooks' Salvation: Black People and Love, I felt a deep calling to write stories and create art that emphasize how African Americans use love as a tool for building and sustaining positive self-love, self-esteem, and healthy, loving relationships with their mates, children, families, friends, and communities.
2. Could you give us a description of the novel?
Love's Troubadours - Karma: Book One tells the story of Karma Francois, a thirty-something, California-born BoHo BAP (Bohemian Black American Princess) with Louisiana roots and urban debutante flair. She represents a new type of Black woman, a departure from the video vixens and stoic matriarchs. The way she wears her womanhood as she confronts the effects of her poor life choices and embraces a spiritual journey of healing and love, makes her a 21st century archetype that everyone can relate to. The novels begins with Karma's life in an uproar. Her relationships and the museum curator career that she struggled to form in New York City have crumbled, leaving no viable options to rebuild. Relocating to Washington, DC, Karma struggles with denial, depression, and debt. A lack of full-time employment opportunities forces her to craft a gypsy existence as a Jill of Many Trades: yoga teacher, art consultant, and freelance curator. Unable and unwilling to appreciate these jobs as gifts, she wallows in a pool of lost identity-and doesn't see a way to keep from drowning. When she looks in the mirror, Karma sees a woman whose choices have dishonored her true character. Now, for the first time in her life, Karma must learn to see herself for who she really is. Love's Troubadours reveals how our everyday decisions affect our future and explores the healing power of love.
3. I understand Spelman College and Morehouse College are referenced in the novel. What role do these institutions play in the lives of your characters?
The main character Karma's twin sister Violet and cousin Colette are Spelmanites. Karma's cousin Charlie is a Morehouse graduate. In addition, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is discussed by Karma in one of her conversations about her career as a museum curator.
4. Why did you create Karma's career as a museum curator and art consultant?
I created these careers for Karma because I wanted to show an African American woman pursuing employment opportunities in an overwhelming white male world. Sistaloves who walk the museum curator and art consultant career paths don't always receive a lot of media attention for their expertise, talents, and efforts in bringing the voice of artists into the light of the world. I figured that I could give them a huge shout out in my book and open the eyes of folks, specifically women of color, about career opportunities in the art world. Looking back, I realize that the seed for this idea was planted while watching one of my favorite television shows, A Different World. I was always fascinated by the corporate art buyer career that the character Whitley pursued. As a result, I started following the different paths women of African descent such as Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, took in the art world. Golden's curatorial career at the Studio and Whitney Museums, and the artists that she selected to participate in exhibitions, expanded my awareness and appreciation of contemporary African American art and artists of African descent. Thank goodness for her efforts in promoting art that pushes the envelope of race and gender. Because of Golden, I developed a passion for the work of African American artist Kara Walker and Black British artist Chris Ofili, two artists that I feature in my novel. Her commitment to build an institution that celebrates and exhibits groundbreaking artists of African descent affirms my commitment to show this powerful body of work in fiction.
5. Who and what are the artists, artwork, and museums featured in the novel.
I feature a diverse group of artists and photographers from the African Diaspora, Americas (USA and Mexico), Europe, and Japan because I wanted to show my readers how much beauty the world has when it comes to art. Some of the artists represent my longtime favorites such as Lois Mailou Jones, Kara Walker, Renee Stout, Faith Ringgold, Chris Ofili, Marion Perkins, Elizabeth Catlett, Alexander Calder, Jean Michel Basquiat, Archibald Motley, Joyce Scott, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. Others represent artists that I discovered while writing the book and visiting museums such as Ansel Adams, Franciso Mora, Maria Izquierdo, Andre Derain, Annie Lee, Betye Saar, Alison Saar, Amalia Amaki, Lorna Simpson, Constantin Brancusi. Eldzier Cortor, Amedeo Modigliani, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Adrian Piper, Hughie Lee Smith, and Charles W. White. The artwork that is woven into the tapestry of my novel represents work that I have come to adore such as Lois Mailou Jones' Les Fetishes, Renee Stout's Louisiana Love Icon, Yayoi Kusama's Collage, Faith Ringgold's Soul Sister, Diego Rivera's Nude with Calla Lilies, Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary, and Elizabeth Catlett's Singing Their Songs. I selected museums and galleries that I personally visited or would like to visit such as Howard University Gallery of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, DuSable Museum of African American History, Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Brooklyn Museum of Art, El Museo de Barrio, and the Drawing Center. To learn more about the artists, artwork, and museums featured in my novel, visit http://kiamshacom.blogspot.com/2007/09/blessings-all-my-debut-novel-loves.html.
6. Your novel references Haitian spirituality, culture, cuisine, and art. How did you develop an interest in these areas?
While I was a student at Morgan State University, I learned about Haiti through my roommate Marie-Denise. Her parents were from Haiti. Whenever I visited Marie-Denise in the Bronx, I spent a lot of time talking to her mother Freda about life in Haiti. "Momma" Freda's fabulous Haitian cuisine and stories inspired me to read about Haitian spirituality, culture, cuisine, and art. My research led me to the Haitian loa Erzulie, author Edwidge Danticat, and the artwork of Renee Stout. Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory and Stout's artwork reference Erzulie in their work. They inspired me to create my own interpretation of Erzulie's veve which is included as a drawing inside the novel. The drawing has become the official logo of Love's Troubadours' products and apparel.
In my novel, the main character Karma has a tattoo of Erzulie on her body, eats lunch at a cafe called Erzulie in San Francisco, and has dreams of several paintings of Erzulie that she saw at the restaurant. One of the paintings illustrates the annual pilgrimages that Haitians make to honor the anniversary of the day in 1884 when the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared in the foliage near the Saut d'Eau waterfall. This dream reminds Karma of the way her mother and grandmother celebrated Erzulie and the New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.
7. Why did you select yoga, meditation, healing, and spirituality as core themes in the lives of your characters?
I selected these themes because they dominate my life. For the past twelve years, yoga has played a major role in my life. It has helped me navigate my daily life, emotional well-being, and creative journey as a writer and artist. I took my first yoga class during an African American studies tour of Egypt in 1995. After I returned, I started taking private lessons from my teacher Gloria. She taught me yoga poses, breathing exercises, and meditation that fit my life and needs. I still use some of the same tools that I learned when I come to the mat. Yoga and meditation help me to surrender my will, release my concerns, and breathe in new possibilities. My body stretches, my heart opens, and my lungs expand. They prepare me to embrace healing and spiritual practices. I emphasized healing and spirituality in my novel because I think people need to see more images of folks embracing their own unique blend of healing tools and spiritual practices. I also wanted to encourage people to tap into their own spirits and open up to healing tools to make their lives better.
8. What made you become a yoga teacher and Reiki practitioner?
The more that I practiced yoga, the more I felt called to serve others with healing tools. I completed my yoga teacher training in March 2006 at Flow Yoga Center in DC. In June 2006, I founded kg yoga and currently offer one-on-one private sessions and a free monthly community morning yoga class in Malcolm X-Meridian Hill Park in DC. For more information, visit http://kgyoga.blogspot.com.
9. What type of yoga do you teach?
I teach kind and gentle Hatha yoga. I incorporate meditation, poetry, sacred wisdom teachings, goddess archetypes, Ghanaian Andinkra symbols, kirtan singing, chakra tuning, reiki healing touch, aromatherapy, mantra chanting with mala beads, laughing yoga, yin yoga, mouth yoga, and office yoga into my classes.
10. Why does your novel emphasize a diversity of loving relationships in the African American community?
People of African descent love in many ways. Our families are unique. I wanted to show how beautiful our love and lives are. I wanted to affirm and celebrate straight, lesbian, and gay loving relationships. My prayer is that we all accept ourselves and each other as we live and love in different ways with the understanding that we are all connected through divine love.
11. What motivated you to use your book as a platform to discuss health challenges that impact Black communities such as mental health, HIV/AIDS and sarcoidosis?
Many members of our community do not readily embrace the importance of dealing wiith their emotional pain by seeking support from mental health professionals. I used to share that same belief until I sought therapy from a licensed therapist. With her support, I was able to navigate the loss of my career identity, understand and accept my poor life choices, and learn coping tools to help me deal with stress and anxiety. My therapy taught me that my emotional and spiritual well-being require daily self-care and sometimes professional support. That's why I made sure my main character addressed her mental health challenges with support from a therapist, family, friends, and healing tools such as yoga, meditation, and journaling.
My work as an artist-in-residence at Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts at Howard University Hospital and volunteer service at The Women's Collective, a direct services organization that supports women living with HIV/AIDS in Washington, DC, convinced me that we need to use creative ways to raise HIV/AIDS awareness. The impact it is having on the lives of Black women around the world is tremendously devastating.
I highlighted sarcoidosis because my best friend and Kamaria learned that she had it in 2004. Sarcoidosis is a disease of unknown cause in which inflammation occurs in the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, eyes, skin, or other tissues. This health challenge changed the landscape of her life. She has utilized this experience as an opportunity to rebuild her life from the inside out. Kamaria has taught me how important it is to surrender to Spirit and to take care of my health by maintaining balance. My friend Natalie has lived with sarcoidosis in London for several years. She has been able to manage her health challenge with alternative therapies like acupuncture. Her quality of life has improved and now includes a loving relationship with her life partner and newborn baby. Natalie reminds how important it is to believe in yourself and trust your intuition in all areas of your life.
12. Why did you emphasize several characters' cultural ties to Cuba, Haiti, England, India, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, and Russia?
I wanted to show the multilayered identities and cultural ties that people of African descent possess. I think writers of African descent need to do this more because we don't always see positive images of our uniqueness in fiction, film, and art. I basically created the world I want to live in. My prayer is that our community and the world learns about and celebrates our rich heritage, beauty, brilliance, and presence.
13. Your novel also features characters who are members of Black Greek-letter organizations and graduates of historically Black colleges and universities. Why did you choose to highlight these organizations and schools?
I chose to highlight these organizations and schools because they helped shape who I am today. I wanted my readers to know that these Black institutions make strong contributions in the lives of their members and students. They also enrich and serve the Black community and American society. I am a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. While I was a student at Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Baltimore, Maryland, Sigma taught me how to be a leader and give back to my community. It helped me understand the power of working together in an organization -- the good, bad, and in between. Sigma reinforced what I learned growing up as a daughter, great granddaughter, and great niece of Sigma sorors. I am also the granddaughter of a Kappa man and great niece of an AKA woman. My Morgan experience allowed me to fully explore myself. I became involved in dorm life, student government, French plays, the French club, and the pan-Hellenic council. I even ran for Miss Morgan. During my senior year, I was able to intern for my sorority sister who was a member of the Maryland General Assembly. I felt loved and cared for at Morgan. It was a second home that nurtured and prepared me to face the world.
14. Music plays a major role in your novel. What musical artists do you feature in your novel?
I feature the music of Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Sting, Tunde Jegede, Katch 22 featuring HKB FiNN, Deva Premal, India.Arie, Amel Larrieux, Omar, Eric Roberson, Fertile Ground, Julie Dexter, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Les Nubians, Stevie Wonder, Omar Sosa, Susana Baca, and others.
15. What role does poetry and spoken word play in your novel?
Poetry and spoken word are included in several chapters because they help Karma get in touch with her emotions and the issues she has been running from. She is able to release a lot of her anger through her poetry. The spoken word events demonstrate how powerful words are. They give Karma's truth and choices a life of their own. They also show the power of community when women come together in a sacred space to affirm their creativity, emotions, experiences, and spirits.
16. How long did it take you to write the novel? What did it involve preparing for it?
It took me ten years to complete the novel. First and foremost it involved surrendering and opening to Spirit. I learned that I had to let go of my ego and need to control the process. This lesson appeared in several stages of writing and publishing the book. To be honest, it still appears. It looks like it will be a lifelong lesson in my creative journey. Faith in Spirit and myself to complete the writing process was the second part of the preparation process. Understanding and giving thanks that I could not give birth to this book without the support of Spirit and others was the third part. Having patience with myself and others who helped me in the process was the fourth part. The fifth part was being willing to delve into and resolve my own emotions, fears, and experiences so that I could create the emotional and spiritual architecture of some of the characters. The sixth part was realizing that NO work of art made by human hand is perfect. That's what makes it so humbling. That's why it forces one to let it go and allow it to be what it is supposed to be -- a gift from Spirit delivered through a human being to other human beings who are supposed to receive it. The seventh part of the preparation was learning how to use meditation, yoga, reiki healing touch, acupuncture, collage-making, painting, and silence in nature to relax and open to divine guidance on listening to the characters and telling their stories according to Spirit's will. Reading books, magazines, blogs, prayers, wisdom teachings, quotes, and poetry that influenced how I told the story and described the characters was the eighth part of the preparation. Living on a budget and working with my financial advisor to develop a plan to pay for the self-publication of the book was the ninth part of the preparation. The tenth part of the preparation was finalizing the legal and financial structure of my business so I could be ready to handle life after writing the first book.
17. Do you have a process that you use to write your novels, poetry, etc.?
My process starts with surrendering my will to Spirit, trusting the process, and listening to my inner wisdom. As my creative journey moves along, I take time to step away from the work by praying, singing, chanting, practicing yoga and meditation, walking and running in nature, drinking tea, reading magazines and books, listening and dancing to music, fasting from food, sitting in cafes and eavesdropping, and going to the movies. I do these things to keep myself relaxed and balanced. The more relaxed and balanced I feel, the better I write. I use whatever I am called to in the moment.
18. Who are your favorite writers?
My favorite writers include the Buddha, Lorraine Hansberry, bell hooks, Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Myrtle Filmore, Susan L. Taylor, Jane Austin, Rumi, Isabel Allende, Caroline Shola Arewa, Toni Cade Bambara, Jewel Parker Rhodes, Audre Lorde, Catherine Ponder, Don Miguel Ruiz, Tim'm West, Ntozake Shange, Ernest Holmes, Iyanla Vanzant, Kevin Powell, E. Ethelbert Miller, Toni Blackman, Mark Anthony Neal, Tricia Rose, Queen Afua, Veronica Chambers, Monique Greenwood, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes.
19. What is next for you?
I am currently in the process of completing my first poetic memoir and second novel. My poetic memoir is entitled that which awakens me. It will be published by iUniverse in late fall 2008. The second novel is entitled Love's Troubadours - Symon: Book Two and will be published in December 2009. It is shaped around my need to show how Black men navigate their emotional and spiritual journeys.
20. How can people purchase your book and learn more about your novel and creative efforts?
The book is sold online for $20.95 on Amazon.com
They can also shop online at www.cafepress.com/kiamshacom for Love's Troubadours' apparel and products.
They can learn more about the novel and my creative efforts by visiting:
Ananda's internet radio interviews on the Black Author Showcase and Black Women's Roundtable:
Love's Troubadours YouTube videos: www.youtube.com/kiamshaleeke
*now you have no excuse not to know*